DOWN TO EARTH WITH...: News about people from AGI and its 44 member societies
Archive of past profiles stories by date
National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, documentary filmmaker and population geneticist Spencer Wells has spent more than a decade on the trail of Adam — or rather, on the trail of a genetic marker that exists only on the Y chromosome and can be tracked back in time to a single man who lived in Africa about 60,000 years ago. Since 1996, Wells has collected DNA samples from indigenous populations in Central Asia, the former Soviet republics and elsewhere around the globe, seeking to trace the migration of human ancestors.
That work has ultimately led to the “Genographic Project,” an ongoing, five-year effort directed by Wells and sponsored by National Geographic and other organizations to track ancient human migration across the globe using tens of thousands of DNA samples from indigenous and traditional populations around the world, as well as from thousands of non-indigenous volunteers. Launched in April 2005, this global database, Wells says, reveals not only human genetic diversity, but also how closely related we ultimately are.
Wells has also brought his discoveries back to the public with the book and subsequent PBS documentary The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, which followed his DNA-collecting expeditions around the world during 2001 and 2002. He recently published a second book, Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project. He spoke with Geotimes reporter Carolyn Gramling about his work.
CG: How did you become interested in investigating this genetic detective story?
CG: What part of a person’s DNA do you use to track their ancestors?
In Deep Ancestry, we explain how we trace ancestry using mitochondrial DNA [which is passed only through the female line], as well as the markers on the Y chromosome.
CG: Why did you decide to make a book and documentary film of your travels?
And we’re continuing to make documentaries about using genetics on mummies or people who look like Norwegian Vikings to explain human diversity and the meaninglessness of race.
CG: What does your latest book, Deep Ancestry, cover?
CG: In addition to indigenous people, you have volunteers from all over the world sending in DNA samples so their own deep ancestry can be tracked. Why are people so eager to learn about their ancestors from long ago?